No-Till And No-Dig Gardening Techniques Gaining Ground

I bought some carrots at my local farmer’s market a couple of weeks ago and the girl I got them from told me they were the world’s best carrots. She was right; they were perfectly sweet and earthy tasting. When I went back to buy more the following week, I asked her how they turned out so well. She said it’s her soil. Her carrots taste so darn good because her soil is so darn happy. She practices no-till farming, a movement that is growing in popularity around the world.

The No-Till Movement

No-till farming involves growing crops without disturbing the soil with tractors or other machinery. Whenever you dig down into your soil, whether it be with a tractor or a simple shovel, you are destroying the work and fertility that microorganisms have already created. Plowing and tillage are major contributing factors to soil erosion, which is a major environmental concern. Tilling soil also releases CO2 into the atmosphere, causing global warming.

The no-till movement is gaining in popularity. In 2009, about 35% of the USA’s cropland at least partly incorporated the no-till concept. Only 10% of the farmland was strictly no-till. In Canada, conventional tillage has lost its status as the primary option; between 1991 and 2006, the total planting area using no-till practices increased from 7% to 46%.

no-dig garden

There are pros and cons to the no-till movement. The most obvious reason in favor of the movement is the environment; no-till prevents soil erosion and compaction while also creating a healthier soil that can better absorb nutrients and water. Yields are just as strong as with conventional tillage, and by eliminating tractors, plows, and other heavy machinery, farmers also gain financially.

Beyond the fact that it’s much more work for the farmers, many argue there is one major con to the no-till movement: plows help remove weeds from the fields both before and after planting. Without the machinery, farmers often have no choice but to replace their plows with herbicides.

The Double-Digging Method

Whether you’re a fan of no-till farming or conventional tillage techniques, we can all agree the preserving the natural balance and fertility of our soil is paramount. There are other methods out there when it comes to farming, whether it be in large-scale productions or in home gardens.

The double-digging method keeps the soil microbiology intact, while also making your earth loose enough to plant in right away. With the improvement in drainage and aeration, proponents say this gardening technique leads to healthy roots, beautiful blooms, and high yields. You would generally go this route when creating new garden beds.

no-dig garden

It’s hard work, but the good news is you only need to do it once every few years if it’s done right the first time. Basically, double-digging involves loosening two layers of soil and adding compost to the earth. The first layer of soil is removed with a shovel, while the second is loosened with a pitchfork. There are some great how-to tutorials online, but here’s the main idea:

  • Shovel a foot-wide trench the length of your new garden bed and keep the soil for later. The trench should be about 10” deep.
  • Take a pitchfork and push it down into the bottom of the trench you dug. Don’t turn the soil; just rock it back and forth, gently loosening the ground.
  • Spread some compost into the trench and gently work it into the soil with the fork.
  • Make a new foot-wide trench beside the strip you just completed, taking the soil and using it to fill the previous hole. Be careful not to move the soil around too much.
  • Repeat these steps the entire length of your new bed, using the soil you removed from the first trench to complete the final line.  
  • Cover the top layers with compost and gently work it into the bed with a pitchfork. Rake the bed out and get planting!

The No-Dig Garden

If you’d like to improve the soil in your existing garden beds without digging it up, there’s an interesting way to do that too. I found this no-dig method in my book, The Guide to Humane Critter Control: Natural, Non-Toxic Pest Solutions to Protect Your Yard and Garden, by Theresa Rooney. Follow this guide, and you’ll keep precious soil bacteria and fungi intact, while also preventing weed seeds from sprouting without the use of herbicides.

  • Cut back all existing vegetation and leave the scraps in the bed for compost.
  • Water the soil very well, then cover the area with newspaper. You’ll need about 5-10 layers to cover a normal amount of weeds. Hardier varieties will need about 20 layers of coverage.
  • Cover the newspaper with compost, dried leaves or mulch, then water well.
  • Plant right away by peeling back some of the compost and punching a hole in the paper. Or, wait one season and plant later. This is a wonderful process for the fall!
  • The newspaper decomposes after one growing season.

There’s so much more to building gardens than digging around in some dirt. Keep these methods in mind (and your pitchfork handy) for your next garden project!

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.